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Osteopathy is a system and philosophy of health care that separated from traditional (allopathic) medical practice about a century ago. It places emphasis on the musculoskeletal system, hence the name—osteo refers to bone and path refers to disease. Osteopaths also believe strongly in the healing power of the body and do their best to facilitate that strength. During this century, the disciplines of osteopathy and allopathic medicine have been converging.

It is a system of therapy founded in the 19th century based on the concept that the body can formulate its own remedies against diseases when the body is in a normal structural relationship, has a normal environment and enjoys good nutrition.

While osteopathy takes a “holistic” approach to medical care, it also embraces modern medical knowledge, including medication, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy when warranted. Osteopathy is particularly concerned with maintaining correct relationships between bones, muscles, and connective tissues. The practice of osteopathy often includes chiropractic-like adjustments of skeletal structures. Craniosacral therapy, a practice in which the bones and tissues of the head and neck are manipulated, also arose in osteopathy.

Osteopathy shares many of the same goals as traditional medicine, but places greater emphasis on the relationship between the organs and the musculoskeletal system as well as on treating the whole individual rather than just the disease.

Pain is the chief reason patients seek musculoskeletal treatment. Pain is a symptom, not a disease by itself. Of critical importance is first to determine the cause of the pain. Cancers, brain or spinal cord disease, and many other causes may be lying beneath this symptom. Once it is clear that the pain is originating in the musculoskeletal system, treatment that includes manipulation is appropriate.


Osteopathy was founded in the 1890s by Dr. Andrew Taylor, who believed that the musculoskeletal system was central to health. The primacy of the musculoskeletal system is also fundamental to chiropractic, a related health discipline. The original theory behind both approaches presumed that energy flowing through the nervous system is influenced by the supporting structure that encase and protect it—the skull and vertebral column. A defect in the musculoskeletal system was believed to alter the flow of this energy and cause disease. Correcting the defect cured the disease. Defects were thought to be misalignments—parts out of place by tiny distances. Treating misalignments became a matter of restoring the parts to their natural arrangement by adjusting them.

As medical science advanced, defining causes of disease and discovering cures, schools of osteopathy adopted modern science, incorporated it into their curriculum, and redefined their original theory of disease in light of these discoveries. Near the middle of the 20th century the equivalance of medical education between osteopathy and allopathic medicine was recognized, and the D.O. degree (Doctor of Osteopathy) was granted official parity with the M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) degree. Physicians could adopt either set of initials.

However, osteopaths have continued their emphasis on the musculoskeletal system and their traditional focus on “whole person” medicine. As of 1998, osteopaths constitute 5.5% of American physicians, approximately 45,000. They provide 100 million patient visits a year. From its origins in the United States, osteopathy has spread to countries all over the world.


Osteopaths, chiropractors, and physical therapists are the experts in manipulations (adjustments). The place of manipulation in medical care is far from settled, but millions of patients find relief from it. Particularly backs, but also necks, command most of the attention of the musculoskeletal community. This community includes orthopedic surgeons, osteopaths, general and family physicians, orthopedic physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists, specialists in orthotics and prosthetics, and even some dentists and podiatrists. Many types of headaches also originate in the musculoskeletal system. Studies comparing different methods of treating musculoskeletal back, head, and neck pain have not reached a consensus, in spite of the huge numbers of people that suffer from it.

The theory behind manipulation focuses on joints, mostly those of the vertebrae and ribs. Some believe there is a very slight offset of the joint members—a subluxation. Others believe there is a vacuum lock of the joint surfaces, similar to two suction cups stuck together. Such a condition would squeeze joint lubricant out and produce abrasion of the joint surfaces with movement. Another theory focuses on weakness of the ligaments that support the joint, allowing it freedom to get into trouble. Everyone agrees that the result produces pain, that pain produces muscle spasms and cramps, which further aggravates the pain.

Some, but not all, practitioners in this field believe that the skull bones can also be manipulated. The skull is, in fact, several bones that are all moveable in infants. Whether they can be moved in adults is controversial. Other practitioners manipulate peripheral joints to relieve arthritis and similar afflictions.

Manipulation returns the joint to its normal configuration. There are several approaches. Techniques vary among practitioners more than between disciplines. Muscle relaxation of some degree is often required for the manipulation to be successful. This can be done with heat or medication. Muscles can also be induced to relax by gentle but persistent stretching. The manipulation is most often done by a short, fast motion called a thrust, precisely in the right direction. A satisfying “pop” is evidence of success. Others prefer steady force until relaxation permits movement.

Return of the joint to its normal status may be only the first step in treating these disorders. There is a reason for the initial event. It may be a fall, a stumble, or a mild impact, in which case the manipulation is a cure. On the other hand, there may be a postural misalignment (such as a short leg), a limp, or a stretched ligament that permits the joint to slip back into dysfunction. Tension, as well as pain, for emotional reasons causes muscles to tighten. If the pain has been present for any length of time, there will also be muscle deterioration. The osteopathic approach to the whole person takes all these factors into account in returning the patient to a state of health.

Other repairs may be needed. A short leg is thought by some to be a subluxation in the pelvis that may be manipulated back into position. Other short legs may require a lift in one shoe. Long-standing pain requires additional methods of physical therapy to rehabilitate muscles, correct posture, and extinguish habits that arose to compensate for the pain. Medications that relieve muscle spasm and pain are usually part of the treatment. Psychological problems may need attention and medication.

Manipulation has rarely caused problems. Once in a while too forceful a thrust has damaged structures in the neck and caused serious problems. The most common adverse event, though, is misdiagnosis. Cancers have been missed; surgical back disease has been ignored until spinal nerves have been permanently damaged.

Normal results
Many patients find that one or a series of manipulations cures long-standing pain. Other patients need repeated treatments. Some do not respond at all. It is always a good idea to reassess any treatment that is not producing the expected results.

Sources:http://www.healthline.com/galecontent/osteopathy-1 and http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=4684